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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Minus injured Lillard, Portland has firepower but not enough defense

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Zion Williamson, rookie forward, slams for two points as the New Orleans Pelicans defeat the host Trail Blazers on Friday night.Zion Williamson's Moda Center debut was a smashing success for the New Orleans Pelicans and a bummer for the Trail Blazers.

In his 11th NBA game, the 6-7, 285-pound rookie scored a team-high 25 points to lead the Pelicans (24-32) past Portland 128-115 Friday night, ending the Blazers' five-game homecourt win streak.

The bruising left-hander — who sat out New Orleans' first 45 games after knee surgery — made 10 of 17 shots from the field and scored 19 of his points in the first half in staking the Pelicans to a 73-63 lead at the break.

The Blazers (25-32) closed to within 80-77 five minutes into the third quarter, but were outscored 22-6 the rest of the quarter to go into the final period trailing 102-83. Portland got no closer than nine points the rest of the way and trailed 128-108 before scoring the final seven points.

It was the first game for the Blazers without Damian Lillard as the NBA All-Star point guard recovers from a groin injury suffered in Portland's last game nine days ago. The Blazers dressed only nine players.

"We're shorthanded, and I thought it was a good effort by our team," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "I was disappointed with our defense in the first half. We had a better effort the second half."

The victory gave New Orleans a 4-0 sweep in its season series with Portland, important in that the Blazers and Pelicans are two of the three teams chasing Memphis (28-28) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Portland is 3 1/2 games back, with San Antonio (24-31) in a virtual tie with the Blazers New Orleans a half-game behind them but tied in the loss column.

Williamson — echoing the message delivered by coach Alvin Gentry before the game — declined to place extra importance on Friday's victory.

"Honestly, for us at this point, every game is important," he said. "We're in like a college season at this point. Every game matters. If we take a loss, it's a big loss. We have to come with it every game."

New Orleans did Friday, bombing effectively from the 3-point line. The Pelicans made 8 of their first 11 attempts and finished 18 for 34 (.529) from beyond the stripe. They shot .536 from the field.

"They hit a lot of 3's — 3's in transition, 3's in the half-court, 3's on kick-outs," said Portland's CJ McCollum, who took over much of the ballhandling in Lillard's absence. "It made a difference in the game, for sure."

McCollum scored 27 points and matched his career high with 10 assists. Hassan Whiteside came through with 19 points, 12 rebounds and six blocked shots and Carmelo Anthony chipped in 20 points, but the Blazers — who entered the game 27th in the NBA in defensive rating — couldn't slow down their adversaries.

"We competed, but we just had some lapses defensively," McCollum said. "We fouled a lot in the first half. (The Pelicans) shot 28 free throws in the half. That's way too many easy points.

"We figure out ways to score. We always have. We've just got to tighten it up at the other end."

The Pelicans would have been further ahead had they made more than 15 of their 28 foul shots in the half. They finished 20 of 33 (.606) at the line. It didn't matter.

"Whether it was our defense or good shooting, their 3-point shooting hurt us," Stotts said. "And they were able to pick apart our pick-and-roll defense, particularly in the first half."

Part of the intrigue of the evening was the chance to watch the ballyhooed Williamson in person. He made 8 of his first 11 shots from the field, working the interior against Trevor Ariza and, for stretches in the second half, the Hall of Fame-bound Anthony.

"I don't want to say that was fun," Williamson said with a grin. "He's Carmelo. His resume speaks for itself. He's a crafty player. For him to not be in the league for (a while), he's still a great player. It's always tough to try to match up with players like that, but I love the challenge."

Williamson drew a number of fouls but made only 5 of 10 free-throw tries. He is averaging eight attempts per game.

"I draw a lot of fouls," he said, smiling again. "My teammates joke with me and say I get vet calls — I don't know about that yet."

New Orleans faces the Los Angeles Lakers twice in its next four games. The Blazers play host to Detroit (19-39) on Sunday.

"That's a must-win," Whiteside said. "This was a tough loss, but we can't hang out heads."

The Blazers have lost three in a row, though, and face at least a couple of more games without Lillard.

"We have to continue playing, man," Anthony said. "It's unfortunate that injuries have been our (identity) this whole season. We've found ways to keep it going and win some games, but with 25 games left, we need everybody to help us get over the hump and make this push."

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